Intestate succession in California is a critical legal process that comes into play when an individual passes away without a valid will. Governed by specific state statutes, these laws dictate the distribution of a decedent’s property to surviving heirs.

This guide offers a comprehensive overview of how California’s intestate succession laws function, outlining the entitlements of heirs, the proportional inheritance for spouses and children, and the legal pathways to contest an intestate succession. Continue reading to gain clarity on California intestacy laws and how to navigate this often-challenging aspect of estate planning.

What is Intestate Succession?

Intestate succession in California occurs when a person dies without a will. Under California intestate succession laws, the decedent’s heirs are determined by their relationship to the deceased, and the relationship defines who is entitled to receive a portion of the estate. Such heirs might include a surviving spouse, children, and other next of kin.

The following types of property DO NOT pass through intestate succession:

1. Any of the decedent’s property held in a living trust

2. Life insurance proceeds with a named beneficiary

3. Retirement account funds, including IRA and 401(k) with a named beneficiary

4. Payable-on-death bank accounts

5. Any property the decedent owned in joint tenancy with the right of survivorship, as these specific assets pass to the named beneficiaries or joint tenants directly, outside the probate process.

What Happens When Someone Dies Without a Will in California?

When someone dies without a will in California, the laws of intestate succession govern how the estate is divided. The process begins with the appointment of an administrator who handles the estate’s affairs, much like an executor of a will. The administrator is responsible for paying the estate’s debts and taxes, identifying the lawful heirs, and distributing assets according to California’s intestacy laws. The probate court supervises the entire process.

This legal procedure ensures that the estate is divided according to a specific hierarchy of heirs, taking into consideration factors such as marital status, presence of children, and other familial relationships. It’s a complex process that requires meticulous attention to detail, compliance with legal formalities, and, sometimes, court hearings.

Heirs at Law: California Intestate Succession Laws

One question top of mind for those involved in the intestate succession process is, Who are heirs at law in California?” An heir at law is a person legally entitled to inherit the property of another upon that person’s death. A decedent’s heir at law is determined by California’s intestacy laws, based on rules of descent and distribution. The inheritance order is as follows:

  1. Spouse or Domestic Partner — The surviving spouse or domestic partner usually inherits a portion or all of the estate, but the exact amount can vary depending on the existence of children, parents, or siblings.
  2. Children – The estate is divided equally among the decedent’s children.
  3. Parents – If no children or spouse survive, the estate is divided equally among the parents.
  4. Siblings – Without surviving children, spouse, or parents, siblings receive an equal part of the estate.
  5. Grandparents – If there are no immediate family members, the estate passes to the grandparents.


For married decedents, the surviving spouse’s inheritance depends on the type of property and the presence of other relatives. Special scenarios apply to legally separated spouses and half-siblings. For example, If the decedent is legally separated at the time of death, the surviving spouse will not be entitled to the decedent’s property. Half-siblings all inherit their proportional share despite whether the decedent may have a different father or mother. Refer to Probate Code 6401(c) for other scenarios.

If the decedent has no surviving spouse, children, parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts or uncles, nieces or nephews, cousins, etc, the property will escheat to the State of California, although this is rare.

When Does Intestate Succession Apply to an Estate in California?

Intestate succession in California comes into play under several circumstances. Most obviously, it applies when a person dies without having made a valid will. But the rules of intestate succession might also apply if a will is found to be invalid or if it doesn’t cover all of the decedent’s assets.

Furthermore, if a will exists but fails to distribute all of the assets, the remaining assets not covered by the will would be subject to intestate succession. This may occur if certain assets were not explicitly mentioned in the will or if named beneficiaries predecease the decedent and no contingency plan was established in the will. Understanding these scenarios can be crucial for family members navigating the probate process.

Assets Included Under Intestate Succession

The assets that fall under intestate succession are those that would have otherwise been directed by a will. This encompasses various types of property:

  • Real Property — This includes real estate such as houses, condominiums, land, and any other real estate holdings.
  • Personal Property — This consists of tangible assets such as vehicles, furniture, jewelry, artwork, and personal belongings.
  • Financial Accounts — Bank accounts without a payable-on-death designation, as well as investments and securities not held in retirement accounts, are subject to intestate succession.
  • Business Interests — Shares or ownership interests in a business may also be included if not otherwise directed by a valid contract or agreement.

Understanding which assets are included in intestate succession can help families prepare for the legal process and reduce potential conflicts among heirs.

What Does a Spouse Receive When There Is No Will?

The share of the estate that a surviving spouse receives when there is no will depends on several factors, such as the nature of the property and the presence of other relatives, such as children. California law distinguishes between community property, which is generally acquired during marriage, and separate property, which might include assets acquired before marriage or through inheritance.

  • Community Property — The surviving spouse automatically inherits the decedent’s half of the community property.
  • Separate Property — The distribution of separate property varies based on surviving family members. For example, if there are surviving children, the spouse might receive one-third to one-half of the separate property, with the rest going to the children.

This distribution ensures that the surviving spouse is provided for but also takes into consideration the rights of other close family members.

What Do Children Get Under California Intestate Succession Laws?

Children — including those who are adopted — are often primary beneficiaries under intestate succession. The share that children receive depends on several factors:

  • No Surviving Spouse — If there is no surviving spouse, the children inherit the entire estate, divided equally among them.
  • With a Surviving Spouse — If there is a surviving spouse, the children’s share may vary depending on the type of property and the number of children.
  • Predeceased Children — If a child has predeceased the parent, but leaves behind their own descendants (grandchildren), those descendants may inherit the child’s share.

Understanding the rights of children under intestate laws can help families plan and make informed decisions during an already challenging time.

At a Glance: California Intestate Succession Chart

The following table illustrates the distribution of an estate under California intestate succession laws:

Relationship Share of Separate Property if There’s a Spouse Share of Separate Property if No Spouse
Spouse Depends on other surviving relatives 100%
Children Varies (one-third to one-half) 100% divided equally
Parents None 100% divided equally if no children
Siblings None Equal parts if no children or parents
Grandparents None All if no immediate family

Can Someone Contest an Intestate Succession in California?

Contesting an intestate succession is a legal process where an individual or party challenges the distribution of the estate. Grounds for contesting might include disagreements over who the lawful heirs are, the valuation of assets, or claims of creditor’s rights.

It’s a complicated procedure that requires proper legal justification and often leads to litigation. Typically, those contesting must have a legitimate interest in the estate, such as being a close relative who would have inherited if not for the application of intestate laws. Contesting intestate succession might lead to legal battles, emotional stress, and delays in the distribution of the estate, and often requires the assistance of legal professionals.

Additional Important California Intestate Succession Rules

In addition to the main laws governing intestate succession in California, there are other important rules and considerations that could affect how an estate is distributed:

  • 120-Hour Survival Requirement
    To inherit under California’s intestate succession laws, a person must outlive the decedent by at least 120 hours. This rule is designed to simplify the administration of the estate when deaths occur close together, such as in an accident.
  • Simultaneous Death
    In cases where it’s impossible to determine the order of deaths (e.g., spouses dying simultaneously in an accident), California law provides specific guidelines for treating the distribution of assets.
  • Non-Relative Inheritance
    If no relatives are found, the property will escheat to the State of California. While this is rare, it emphasizes the importance of maintaining clear records of family relationships.
  • Adopted and Step-Children
    Adopted children have the same inheritance rights as biological children under California law. Step-children, however, generally do not inherit under intestate succession unless legally adopted by the decedent.
  • Immigration Status
    In California, the immigration status of an heir does not affect their right to inherit under intestate succession.
  • Unmarried Partners
    Unlike spouses, unmarried partners do not automatically inherit under California intestate succession laws. This can lead to unexpected outcomes if proper estate planning is not undertaken.

Understanding these additional rules is essential for anyone involved in administering or receiving an inheritance under California’s intestate succession laws. They add layers of complexity that may require professional guidance.

Common Problems With Intestate Succession

Intestate succession can lead to various challenges and problems that complicate the administration of an estate. Some common issues include:

  • Disputes Among Heirs
    Without a will to clarify the decedent’s wishes, family members might disagree about who is entitled to what. This can lead to bitter disputes and even litigation.
  • Difficulty Identifying Heirs
    Determining the correct heirs can be a complex process, especially if family relationships are not clearly documented. This might require extensive research and even professional genealogical services.
  • Delay in Distribution
    The intestate succession process is usually more time-consuming compared to executing a will. This might delay the distribution of assets to heirs, causing financial hardships.
  • Potential Tax Consequences
    Depending on the value of the estate and the relationship between the decedent and heirs, there may be unexpected or unfavorable tax consequences.
  • Lack of Provision for Minor Children
    Without a will, there may be no clear plan for the guardianship of minor children. This can lead to legal battles and uncertainty for the children’s welfare.
  • Ignoring Personal Wishes
    Intestate succession laws apply a one-size-fits-all approach that may not reflect the unique wishes or personal values of the deceased. Important personal relationships and moral obligations may be ignored.
  • Costs
    Without clear direction from a will, the probate process can become more complex and expensive, potentially reducing the net value of the estate distributed to heirs.

Preparing for these potential problems can help mitigate their impact. Consultation with legal professionals or estate planners may be beneficial to ensure the smooth administration of the estate and to uphold the decedent’s unexpressed wishes as closely as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

What if there is no will, and no relatives can be found?

In rare cases, the estate may escheat to the State of California.

How long does intestate succession take?

The process can take several months to over a year, depending on the complexity of the estate.

Can a domestic partner inherit under intestate succession?

Yes, registered domestic partners have the same rights as spouses under California law.

How are debts paid in intestate succession?

Debts are paid from the estate before distribution to heirs.

Can I avoid intestate succession with a living trust?

Yes, placing assets in a living trust can avoid the intestate succession process.

If your loved one passed away without a will, the laws of intestate succession in California will direct how the estate is distributed among the heirs of the decedent. Probating an estate without a will doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. Contact A People’s Choice to learn more about how we can assist in probating your loved one’s estate without the need for an expensive lawyer.